HomeBusinessThe NASA Engineer Who Made the James Webb Space Telescope Work

The NASA Engineer Who Made the James Webb Space Telescope Work


But first the James Webb Space Telescope had to work.

“There’s a huge distance between success and failure,” said

Thomas Zurbuchen,

the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, “and only a few actions that move you from one to the other.”

The release of the first images from Webb next week will represent a groundbreaking moment for a project decades in the making, and the people most excited to see them are the ones who suspected they never would. Webb hovered much closer to the wrong end of the spectrum between failure and success for most of its existence. It cost so much and was delayed for so long that the mission was nearly canceled several times. But for all the scientific brainpower and engineering ingenuity devoted to Webb, one of the few actions that made a difference was something else altogether. Actually, it was someone.

We think of

Neil Armstrong

when we think about NASA’s greatest triumphs. We should think of

Greg Robinson,

too.

The James Webb Space Telescope focused on this star to align its imaging mirrors; NASA plans to release the observatory’s first scientific photos next week.



Photo:

NASA/STScI/Associated Press

The process of turning an increasingly epic failure into an unlikely success began with a management shakeup in 2018, when NASA promoted Mr. Robinson to the director of the Webb program. It became his job to send a telescope into orbit around the sun. He might as well have been asked to walk on the moon while he was at it.

Even on a team of 10,000 people working on a $10 billion project, one person can make a difference. And it’s not always the person you expect. You probably don’t know his name, and you wouldn’t know it by listening to him, but nobody on this planet had a bigger hand in Webb finally launching on Christmas last year than Mr. Robinson. He worked such wonders that his boss calls him “the most effective leader of a mission I have ever seen in the history of NASA.”

This sort of praise would sound hyperbolic if Webb’s mission of probing cosmic history, from our solar system to the distant galaxies of the early universe, weren’t so extraordinary. It’s not a telescope. It’s a time machine. By looking billions of years into the past with infrared vision 100 times more sensitive than Hubble, Webb lets us explore two irresistible lines of inquiry: Where did we come from, and are we alone?

John Mather,

the Nobel Prize-winning senior project scientist on Webb, has spent decades preparing to answer those questions, which was enough time to formulate different ways of phrasing them. When a colleague from Italy asked him about the art he finds inspirational, he thought of “The Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Then he thought of Webb.

“We don’t think that’s actually how it worked,” Dr. Mather said of Michelangelo’s fresco. “But how did it work? That, to me, is the inspiring question: How does it all work?”

How it all works also happened to be Mr. Robinson’s responsibility on Webb, which spent most of its existence not working at all. It was 15 years late. It was $9 billion over budget. It was nearly killed by Congress on multiple occasions. An otherwise exultant Nature editorial in a recent issue of the magazine offered this warning about how NASA built Webb: “No one should ever build a telescope in the way NASA built Webb.”

Mr. Robinson took over a broken team at what turned out to be the mission’s critical moment. There was friction between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its primary contractor. There were communications breakdowns among scientists, engineers and technicians. NASA needed someone to turn the overly ambitious mission around, and there was one person for the job. The only problem is that Mr. Robinson already had another job, overseeing the quality and performance of the agency’s programs.

Mr. Robinson ordered a complete assessment, or audit, of the sunshield, a critical element of the Webb telescope that had run into trouble, putting the entire project at risk.



Photo:

Chris Gunn/NASA/Reuters

If humility was one of the reasons Dr. Zurbuchen wanted him, it was also one of the reasons Mr. Robinson needed more convincing. In fact, the first time he was offered the position, he declined.

“Politely,” Mr. Robinson said. “The second time he asked me, I declined again. More politely.”

Dr. Zurbuchen begged enough that Mr. Robinson agreed to leave a NASA post that he loved for a monumentally risky mission perpetually on the brink of embarrassment. He inherited a project running on a schedule efficiency of roughly 50%. “That’s another way of saying every day the mission works, the launch moves by a day,” Dr. Zurbuchen said. By the time Webb finally launched, the schedule efficiency had skyrocketed to 95%. “This is almost miraculous,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

To understand how a more efficient operation can be considered a miracle, it’s important to understand the ridiculous complexity of Webb. This was a project with almost no margin for error, and yet the risk of error was everywhere. There are more than 300 single-point failures in Webb’s system, meaning a malfunction in any one of those devices could have doomed the whole mission.

“On a Mars landing mission,” said

Steve Jurczyk,

formerly NASA’s highest-ranking civil servant, “you might have 70 single-point failures.”

The James Webb Space Telescope was packed up for shipment to its launch site last year.



Photo:

CHRIS GUNN/NASA/REUTERS

But the idea of hundreds of ways the mission could go wrong wasn’t even the most intimidating part of launching Webb.

“Many of our missions have one, two, three new technologies,” Mr. Robinson said. “We have 10 new technologies on Webb, which is just unheard of—and, I often say, just nuts.”

Just nuts isn’t quite the scientific term for Webb’s feats of unprecedented engineering, which is fitting, since Mr. Robinson’s job isn’t limited to science. As an engineer with technical expertise and a bureaucrat with interpersonal skills, he was bilingual: He could speak the language of NASA employees and the politicians who controlled their fate. His official responsibilities included “increasing integration and testing efficiency and effectiveness,” which sounds like euphemistic nonsense outside the confines of a government agency’s offices.

But obsession with getting the little things right is how big things happen. Space has always been the domain of people committed to exponential growth through incremental progress—one small step, then one giant leap. The heroes of the cosmos are both brave and boring. I could almost hear Mr. Armstrong’s famous words when I asked Mr. Robinson how he was celebrating Webb’s success. “A big sigh,” he said, “and a big smile.”

Mr. Robinson turned down the Webb directorship twice—first, he says, ‘politely,’ then ‘more politely’—before finally accepting the position.



Photo:

Greg Kahn for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Robinson’s ascent makes him something of an astronaut himself. The son of tobacco sharecroppers and educated in racially segregated schools, he grew up in Virginia wanting to be so many things that he can’t remember his childhood dreams. “Building a satellite was not one of them,” says Mr. Robinson, who is 62. He went to Virginia Union University on a football scholarship to play quarterback (“I played at it,” he likes to clarify), transferred to Howard University and earned bachelor’s degrees in math and electrical engineering. Soon he reported for work at NASA. He had the right stuff.

Mr. Robinson spent most of his career in various positions of increasing responsibility across NASA, where he developed the quiet but candid leadership style that he would bring to Webb. He had two priorities when he took over. The first was reducing human error. “We all make mistakes,” he said. “If you’re working on the same thing for 20 years, you’re going to make a few.” The second was bringing in outside perspectives. That is, to reduce human error, he involved more humans. “We have people who are smarter and can see things that we just can’t see because we’re just so close to it,” he said.

They needed as many eyes as they could find on Webb’s sunshield, a crucial structure the size of a tennis court that squeezes into a rocket, unpacks itself in outer space and protects the observatory from extreme temperatures that range over more than 500 degrees. In Mr. Robinson’s first month on the job, something unfortunate happened: The fasteners on the sunshield popped free. It was classic human error.

A bunch of loose screws and washers proved to be an early test of Mr. Robinson’s philosophy, and he responded by ordering a comprehensive audit of the entire system from every possible angle. The designers, contractors and engineers independently checked the paperwork against the hardware and compared their notes to identify and solve problems before they metastasized—the NASA equivalent of a colonoscopy. “We found a few things that needed moderate changes,” Mr. Robinson says with an engineer’s understatement.

It may not sound like much in his telling, but moonshots are the result of marginal improvements. Mr. Robinson derives his satisfaction from the modest progress before the massive gains.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What is the most exciting discovery you can imagine the Webb Space Telescope making? Join the conversation below.

The easiest way to make others at NASA giggle with anticipation these days is to ask what they want from Webb. They want to find planets. They want to know more about the period after the Big Bang. They want to peek at the first galaxies, peer into black holes and poke around clouds of dust to learn where stars are born. What they really want is to have their minds blown.

Not even these rocket scientists know what they’re going to see when they point their telescope at the right places. They have some guesses about Webb’s breakthrough discoveries, but they’re hoping to be wrong. In fact, that’s one of the mission’s objectives. Failure of imagination counts as success.

“Success means a surprise,” Dr. Mather said. “There’s something out there that nobody expected.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, launched last year. Scientists say its technology makes it 100 times more powerful than the Hubble and could give it the ability to see back to the first galaxies in the universe. Photo: Jody Amiet/AFP/Getty

Write to Ben Cohen at [email protected]

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